Rice lift Operation


 A Historical Perspective Of Vietnam's Indigenous People

Then < View Pictures > Now

 Rice lift Operation


 Early History| The French| The Vietnam War| Approaching The Year 2000     


Visible to the West, from almost any place along the central coastal plain of Vietnam, are the lofty mountains that form the southern portion of the Annam Cordillera.  (The French call this range the Chaine Annamitique; the Vietnamese know it as the Truong Son, or "Long Mountains.")  These uplands are the abode of people who not long ago lived in a world that they themselves evolved and sustained.  Geographically, this area has come to be known as the "Vietnamese Central Highlands"; to the original residents, it is home for the "sons of the mountains." It is a most appropriate term, capturing the almost mythical relationship that exists between them and the surrounding mountains, which is a world where they know that they will survive or die out as a people.   

Today, these highlanders are known by the French designation, Montagnards ("mountaineers").

Their ethnic tribal names include:  the Bru, Pacoh, Katu, Bahnar, Rhade, Jarai, Cua, Hre, Sedang, Rengao, Halang, Jeh, Monom, Roglai, Stieng, Sre, Chru, Maa, Nop, Mnong, Kayong, Lat, Cil, Hroy, Rai and Koho.

Early History

Ever since a remote time, long before the advent of history, human societies have existed in Southeast Asia.  The drama of change in the course of centuries has produced a rich variety of peoples and cultures.  There have been small groups that settled in ecological niches well suited to their needs, and changing relatively little over the years.  Some migrated and came together with other groups, giving rise to many new and distinct societies while there were those that lost the struggle for survival and died out.

 Through many long centuries before the appearance of civilization in Southeast Asia the warm Indochinese peninsula, with its fertile valleys and deltas, its dense forests so rich in game, and its rivers and coastlines alive with aquatic life, sustained human existence.  One of the earliest links between archeological and historical evidence is to be found in the vestigial ruins of the kingdom of Champa which lie scattered along the mountainous coast of what is now central Vietnam.  These ruins contain a number of inscriptions, most of which relate the deeds of the Cham rulers.  A few, however, refer to a people who lived in the remote hinterland west of Champa...a people who were not as advanced as the Cham and who were regarded with disdain.  These inscriptions constitute the first recorded mention of the highlanders.

Two thousand years ago, the Montagnards settled along the coast and fertile valleys of southeast Indochina.  Over the centuries, other cultures gradually filtered into their homelands.  First, the Cham people expanded their kingdom throughout the coastal lowlands and the Mekong Valley.  Later, the Chinese ancestors of today's ethnic Vietnamese migrated south along the coast of the South China Sea.  Together, these ambitious and expanding cultures forced the Montagnards deeper and deeper into the highlands.  Strangely, this isolation aided their survival.

For the Montagnards, man and society are embedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces.  In the highlanders' green milieu of forested mountains, sweeping, undulating plateaus, and valleys through which brown rivers flow, each ethnic group over time worked out its adaptation to nature and shaped its society.  This evolutionary process resulted in some social-structural differences, but at the same time, adaptation to the mountain country created among them physical and ideational bonds that gave rise to a common culture...a highlander world. 

Montagnards are radically different from the lowland Vietnamese in that they speak languages of the Mon Khmer or Malayopolynesian linguistic stocks and physically resemble Cambodians, Malays and Indonesians.  Although divided into nearly 40 distinct ethnic groups, Montagnard characteristics have historically set them apart from the Cham and Vietnamese. 

In a world centered on small communities, kinship was primary and resources were shared by all.  The people respected the integrity of their natural surroundings, and each society had leaders who served as stewards in preserving it.  Livelihoods were based on agriculture with rice the staple crop.  Villagers farmed slopes and bottomland within the never-ending cycle of rainy seasons followed by dry seasons, of fields planted or fallowing.  The forests supplied game, wild fruits and vegetables, and firewood as well as hardwood, bamboo, and rattan for their houses, artifacts and wood carvings.  Although their religious practices varied, all of the highland people tried to keep in harmony with their deities.  Throughout the highland world there were expressions of beauty in art, architecture, music, and dance. 

The highlanders remained relatively aloof from the Chinese great tradition that molded the society of the Vietnamese and others.  Cham rulers had tributary relations with some highland leaders and there was trade with outsiders.  But lowlanders by and large regarded the mountain country as remote and forbidding, populated by backward tribes.  The Vietnamese were content to remain in their orderly lowland villages surrounded by paddy fields.  Kingdoms and dynasties among the Cham, Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese flourished and crumbled, monumental cities were sacked and abandoned, and populations shifted.  All the while in the background, the mountains, their peaks shrouded in mists, were silent and seemingly immutable.

 The Montagnards could have endured without "civilized" outsiders, but that was not to be.




The arrival of the first French missionaries at the highland town of Kontum in the middle of the nineteenth century ushered in an era of ever-increasing contact among the Montagnard tribes themselves and the outside world.  As the French colonization of Indochina progressed, administration of the highlands became increasingly formal.  Growing numbers of French traders and plantation owners wedged themselves into previously unexplored territories; and as early as 1899, parts of the highlands became formally divided into "Montagnard Provinces."   

In some instances, the newly developing relationships were harmonious and, to varying degrees, mutually beneficial.  The French and Vietnamese gained access to a largely unexploited territory, while the less isolated Montagnard groups were exposed to the goods and techniques of culturally more advanced societies.  French administrators and Christian missionaries established schools, hospitals and leprosariums for Montagnard use. 

Often, however, the new contacts proved disruptive, giving rise to conflict between the Montagnard communities and the outsiders, who were looked on as unwelcome interlopers.  Vietnamese merchants cheated them, Vietnamese and French officials abused them, and most importantly, speculators of both nationalities were intent on usurping their traditional landholdings. 

 While the French may have noticed the early sparks of serious dissent among the Montagnards, the extent of their unrest appears to have been under estimated until it had grown to obviously significant proportions.  The French faced several armed uprisings after the turn of the century, and responded by installing a closer administrative presence.  French military expanded its "pacification" mission by force of arms.

 Even though the number of French colonists in the highlands was steadily growing, the presence of ethnic Vietnamese was still minimal in most areas throughout the 1920's.  Nevertheless, the continuing encroachment of outsiders and their policies provoked retaliation by the Montagnards. 

 World War II brought a relatively quiescent period to the mountains.  On March 9, 1945, however, the Japanese took over the administration of Indochina, plunging the highlanders into a long night of international conflict.  The world that existed prior to that date vanished forever.  With the ensuing Indochina War the Montagnards became "a people in between," as some joined the French and some the Viet Minh, but most found themselves unwitting victims of the struggles to follow.

 When the French reestablished control after the war, they were immediately faced with a growing nationalist movement throughout the country led by Ho Chi Minh, a French educated and Russian trained Communist.  His Viet Minh cadre were soon at work in the highlands luring support from the Montagnards with promises of evicting all foreign control from every corner of the country.

 To ease relations with the Montagnards, the French granted them a high degree of autonomy, issuing in 1946 a federal ordinance that separated five specific Montagnard provinces from the rest of Vietnam.  Thus, while still included among the French colonies comprising Indochina, the Montagnards at last seemed to be on the verge of a degree of political autonomy.     

As fate would have it, moves toward an autonomous Montagnard state were short lived.  In 1951, the French colonial government, under increasing pressure from the Vietnamese nationalists, began to transfer the nominal responsibility for governance to the Vietnamese people.  Bao-Dai, having been installed as the emperor of Vietnam, issued an executive ordinance that brought the Montagnard provinces back under Vietnamese authority.  However, it also specifically guaranteed the preservation and free evolution of Montagnard customs and protected their land rights. 

The era of cooperative interaction ended in 1954 when the French left Vietnam as a result of their defeat by the Viet Minh Communists.  Under the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was split into two separate countries...and more than a million refugees from North Vietnam moved south. 

The Montagnards, highland dwellers for 2,000 years, were about to become outnumbered in their own homeland.




With the Geneva Agreements the Montagnards found themselves under Vietnamese rule and contact between the two groups quickened, resulting in a dramatic new phase of ethnonationalism that initially was political in character and then became militant.  With the 1955 establishment of the Republic of Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem, highland leaders became enraged when their people were classified as "ethnic minorities" in their own mountains.  Eager to build South Vietnam into a viable political entity, Diem concluded that the ethnic minorities (Montagnards, Cham, Khmer and Chinese) would have to be assimilated into the Vietnamese cultural sphere.  The 1957 Land Development Program was designed to attain the dual goals of developing the highlands economically and bringing modernization to the Montagnards by resettling massive numbers of Vietnamese in the region.   

The resettlement program met with early resistance from the Montagnards, who were reluctant to discard their traditional ways for life in the regroupment centers.  They also saw the influx of Vietnamese settlers as a threat to their ancestral lands.  Moreover, the program was not always tactfully carried out, with the result that in some instances fear and antagonism were built up among the highlanders.  Political activism grew, although more spirited than sophisticated.  In 1958, Montagnard leaders formed a group called "Bajaraka," a name derived from the initials of four powerful Montagnard groups (Bahnar, Jarai, Rhade and Koho).  United in this way for the first time, highlanders began advocating a return of Montagnard autonomy.  Although peaceful, Bajaraka's leaders were eventually jailed. 

Despite the intrusions of the land development scheme, the period following the Geneva Agreements was a relatively peaceful time when the highland villagers could move along the trails and farm their fields without fear.  It would be remembered as a happy time.  It ended all too soon at the beginning of the 1960's when the renewed Communist insurgency brought dark clouds of conflict.   

For years after 1954, the communists had not been seriously contested in the highlands.  Ho Chi Minh's promise of autonomy for the Montagnards was a powerful propaganda tool in enlisting their support.  By 1961, it appeared that the South Vietnamese government had lost the loyalty and cooperation of much of the Montagnard population.  To counter this, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) agreed to let the United States send CIA and Special Forces advisors into the highlands to train village defense units, border patrols, and other reconnaissance teams.  This represented the first direct American involvement with the Montagnards.

Although close personal ties formed in combat eventually united most Americans and Montagnards, the relations between the RVN and the highlanders did not improve.  By 1964, the movement for Montagnard independence, which had begun peacefully under Bajaraka, had become more militant.  FULRO (United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) was the new name given to the Montagnard independence movement. After a number of armed revolts, promises were made by the South Vietnamese government aimed at restoring a variety of Montagnard institutions, as well as winning back their loyalty.

 The spread of highlander ethnic identity carried with it recognition that the Montagnard people shared a common culture, which the leaders sought to preserve.  Between 1965 and 1975, the Saigon government (with the encouragement of the Americans) made strides in accommodating the FULRO and non-FULRO leadership.  Efforts forcibly to assimilate the highlanders ceased when programs were designed to give them a place within the national framework that would preserve their ethnic identity.  Indigenous law courts were reinstated, highland languages and cultures were given a place in school curriculums, and programs for granting land titles were begun.

But as the Vietnam War unfolded, spread, and intensified, it drew an ever-growing number of highland villages into its vortex.  The war swept into the mountain country like a typhoon.  Unlike the Indochina war, this conflict was waged with the most modern weaponry, forcing Montagnards to abandon villages and devise strategies to preserve what they could of the man-nature-cosmos harmony.  The use of bombers, rockets, and long-range artillery created precipitous situations, and the war could come crashing in anywhere without warning.  Even where there was no fighting, disruption was spreading as villages were emptied by the Communists, who needed labor, and by American and South Vietnamese commanders, who created free-fire zones.  In the face of a worsening situation, the flood of Montagnard refugees swelled.

 Despite their efforts, a great many refugees found themselves becoming impoverished, increasingly relying on rice supplied by the government and American aid.  The refugees' sadness was expressed by a Montagnard song of longing for the "past life in the village with its rice-planting days, abundance of food, and carefree hunting and fishing."

 The years from 1969 to 1973 proved to be a turning point for Montagnard fortunes as two chains of events unfolded.  The first was the growth of Montagnard political effectiveness at the national level in the Ministry of Ethnic Minorities.  The second was the gradual withdrawal of the U.S. military.

 In an atmosphere of new enthusiasm, Montagnard leadership set out to bolster their threatened social and economic programs and devise relief efforts for the highland victims of the war.  However, they were also well aware that the worsening war could threaten the very existence of their people.  But on the military front, the enormity of the war would soon eclipse all of the Montagnards' political gains.  The struggle for ethnic identity was replaced by the struggle for survival.

 With the Americans gone, the North Vietnamese Army launched a large scale attack in March, 1975.  This led to the fateful decision by a group of Vietnamese generals to abandon the highland towns of Kontum and Pleiku, precipitating what probably was the worst bloodbath of the war and the total collapse of the Saigon military forces.  On May 1, 1975, the Communist troops entered the capital and the Vietnam war was ended. 

The Vietnam War exacted its toll, and one of the most tragic and little-known consequences was the decimation and destruction it brought to the highland people.  By war's end, around 85% of their villages were either in ruins or abandoned.  In some groups, not one house was left standing.  Of the estimated one million Montagnards, between 200,000 and 220,000 had died.  But a great many were not killed by bullets or bombs.  They perished because their world had been shattered.

 In July 1976 (22 years after the Geneva Agreements), the two Vietnams were unified into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV).  Peace, however, did not return to the highlands.




The end of the Vietnam War did not bring any morning light to end the surviving highlanders' long night of horror.  It soon became apparent that the oft-promised autonomy for the Montagnards was only a propaganda ploy.  Hanoi immediately began implementing plans to resettle large numbers of Vietnamese in upland "economic zones."  At the same time, highland leaders were captured and incarcerated either in jails or "reeducation camps."  Some eluded captivity and fled into the forest where they organized a resistance movement.

 At the fall of Saigon, FULRO guerrilla units filtered into the forests along the Cambodian border, and continued their scattered attacks against the new Communist government.  Once counting 10,000 persons, their numbers declined over time.  In 1986, 200 were discovered in a Thai refugee camp and eventually resettled in the United States.  Then in 1992, some 400 men, women and children made contact with UN peace keeping forces in Cambodia and were also granted safe passage to America.  It appears that virtually all organized resistance has come to an end. 

Since 1975 the Vietnamese government has been on a course to abolish the Montagnard way of life, replacing it with a Vietnamese culture and adaptation, both alien to the mountain country.  The SRV Vice Minister of Culture summed up the direction of future policy when he proclaimed in 1976:  "It is necessary to eradicate all the outmoded customs...while gradually bringing the new culture to each ethnic minority.  The state has the duty to bring new, progressive culture to these people...in order to build a new culture with socialist objectives and Vietnamese national characteristics."

 Central planners have been implementing two major programs to realize development of the central highlands.  One involves massive resettlement of Vietnamese.  The other is the forced resettlement of Montagnards into new Vietnamese-style communities where traditional ways of farming are prohibited.  Those settled are prevented from observing traditional ways, notably religious practices and rites of passage. 

One result of development programs is that deforestation is taking place at an alarming rate.  In 1985, the Ministry of Labor reported that between 1975 and 1985, one-fourth of the central highlands forests had been destroyed. 

 Vietnam's Montagnards find themselves on the brink of cultural extinction.  Forced relocation, discouragement of ethnic languages, mandated changes in agricultural practices, deforestation of homelands, and commitment to cultural leveling....all have contributed to their present state.  In the short span of 150 years, the "sons of the mountains" have evolved from free in the forest to "prisoners" in their own land.  From day to day they carry on, trying to preserve the traditions that have sustained them for countless generations. 

 In 1994, the United States trade embargo with Vietnam was ended.  And for the first time since 1975, American citizens were once again allowed to visit the central highlands. 




                SONS OF THE MOUNTAINS, Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1982 

                FREE IN THE FOREST, Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1982 

                WE HAVE EATEN THE FOREST, Georges Condominas, 1977 

                SHATTERED WORLD, Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1993 

                THE MONTAGNARDS OF VIETNAM, Robert L. Mole, 1970

Back To Top Of Page



Copyright - Pleiku Military Police Association 1998 - 2011

E-mail Web-Master